Italian Centre for Research on Universities & HE Systems

Universities and regional socioeconomic systems


Marino Regini and Michele Rostan



Coordinators: Marino Regini (U. of Milano), Michele Rostan (U. of Pavia), and Marco Pitzalis (U. of Cagliari)

1.  The problem: an overview

During the last twenty years several processes fostered the relationships between higher  education and the economic system. On the one hand, changes in production systems increased the importance of innovation, scientific research, and highly-skilled workforce as key resources for economic growth. Moreover, the importance of competitive advantages deriving from the embeddedness of firms in networks that involve a plurality of actors and institutions increase: not only other firms or financial institutions, but also universities and research centres. On the other hand, changes in the relations between state and universities – more institutional autonomy and consequent transformation of universities in organizations with own interests distinct from those of professors;  restrictions in funding from the state in spite of the expansion of higher education and of research costs; growing request for  accountability towards external actors; increasing fund  allocation on the basis of assessment – fostered the openness of universities to the demands of external actors, a better interaction with students, their families and firms, and the introduction of market logics in higher education.

Many universities started to include in their traditional missions a third one, namely  contributing to development and economic competitiveness, and they showed new modes of functioning, frequently introducing an entrepreneurial way of acting, and endowing themselves with new administrative units. These changes went with (and they have been supported by) national and supranational  policies (like those related to the Lisbon Strategy) and “rethorics” as that on the “knowledge society”, embedded in broader institutional contexts as the world polity of science and of higher education.

Recent studies pointed out both a national dimension in the relationships between universities and socioeconomic system, and a regional and local one. A comparative research among European regions singled out several kinds of interaction between higher education and economic system, several ways of external actors’ involvement in academic activities, and several ways of cooperation between academics and economic actors, according to the different socioeconomic features of territories and stakeholders. Also in Italy universities and economic actors are more and more involved in networks as we can see analysing a) the increase in technology transfer offices, university spin-offs, and academic patents, b) several kinds of cooperation between universities and firms, c) the creation and expansion of guidance and job placement services, d) specific surveys on ICT and high technology sectors, and e) surveys on the cooperation between universities and firms with regard to study programmes.

But national studies that analyse in a systematic way the relations between higher education and economic system taking into account the persisting socio-economic gap between the North and the South in our country, the different industrial models characterizing the “three Italies” and their paths of development, and the different social capital diffusion at the provincial level are lacking. This lack is important for two reasons. From an analytical point of view it hampers an understanding of regional differences in universities’ and economic actors’ strategies. If it’s true that universities have a new “third mission” (besides teaching and research), that is a new kind of cooperation between universities and firms to foster economic growth, these relationships must be studied starting from the needs and features of specific territories. Thus, to understand the relations between higher education and the economy it is not enough to analyse differences among economic systems at the national level – an useful approach to avoid purely prescriptive analyses, in any case – but we have to carry out an investigation at the local level. Today, the international institutions themselves point to regional and local variables to study the relations between higher education and the economy, promoting research at the regional level. The project aims at answering these questions.

2.  Aims of the project

The project will study in a systematic way the relationships between universities and the economy, taking into account the regional differences of the Italian production systems. The first aim we want to achieve is to see whether and how much the growing relations between higher education and economic systems studied in other countries are to be found also in the Italian case. More specifically, we want to see a) whether and how much the model of the university as a mostly self-interested institution and isolated from the social and economic context is giving way to a different model, in which universities reckon the demands of the production system ad cooperate with it for socio-economic development; b) whether there is a demand of university services from the external actors; c) whether and how much market, managerial and entrepreneurial logics are penetrating in universities and in the higher education system as a whole.

Second, our research aims at studying if and how this change takes different shapes and contents in the different socioeconomic contexts. We want to understand whether and how the great expansion of Italian HE during the 1990-2005 years interacted with the socio-economic gap between the North and the South that persists in our country, and whether different models of HE and of the relation between HE and the economy are emerging.

Moreover, we want to study the logics of action, motivations, and aims of the actors involved (academic community, administrative machinery, students and families, firms and their associations, administrative bodies) and the possible conflicts among them. In particular we want to see: a) whether a more specific demand for university services by external stakeholders is matched by a request for some degree of control on universities and their strategies by stakeholders; b) whether the growing presence and interaction of a multiplicity of actors in the organizational field of higher education produce cooperation or conflicts among these actors.

To cope with these questions we will analyze five areas of possible interaction between HE and the economy: a) the organization of curricula; b) the use of the products of research; c) services to students and firms; d) external contributions to the finances and the governance of universities; e) factors associated to the birth of a university or a faculty and its effects on the local context. We will single out a set of factors by means of which it will be possible to  explain the opening up of HE to the economy, and the increased attention of the latter towards the former. Since the demands coming from the production system to the university are far from homogeneous, and depend on the features of the local or regional economy they are embedded in, it is not possible to investigate the relations between universities and economic system without taking into account these regional features.

The project aims at creating a national longitudinal dataset at the provincial level collecting information a) on universities and other academic sites, b) on socioeconomic variables (GDP, wages, industrial structure, etc.) and c) on some socio-cultural variables (civicness, etc.). So it will be possible to study the correlation between diffusion of universities and regional development, and especially the relationship between socioeconomic variables and the establishment of new universities on the one hand, and the effects of universities’ presence in the regional economy, on the other.

Our second goal is to study the relationships between universities and the economic system by collecting and coding the agreements signed by universities with firms and administrative bodies, regarding education, research, technological transfer and the provision of services. In this way we expect to create, for the first time, a dataset (when possible it will have a longitudinal structure) representative enough at the territorial level to be used as a quantitative tool for analysis.


Finally, in order to single out the actors involved, their logics of action, the mechanisms of universities’ openness towards the economic sector, and to study the social networks linking universities and the economic system, a limited number of agreements of outstanding interest will be selected, and such cases will be studied in detail with the standard techniques of case study research. Information from the case studies, from available datasets and from the two new ones (one on the correlation between socioeconomic variables and universities’ presence, and one on the agreements between universities and external actors) will allow us to achieve the project’s goals.

3.  Structure

Regarding its articulation, the research includes three goals, that will somehow overlap but can be ordered as follows.

Goal 1

First of all, we want to collect and systematize abundant yet dispersed information on the socio-economic development at the provincial level, associating it with information on diffusion of universities. The creation of a targeted database at provincial level will allow to understand factors explaining the growth and territorial localisation of university sites and to estimate the impact of universities on local and regional development.

Goal 2

Second, we aim to understand in a non fragmentary way the relations between universities and economic actors in particular economic context. We do not want to limit our work to case studies, which can be important for exploratory purposes, but are necessarily limited to a few “success cases”. In order to reach such a goal, we want to prosecute on the path started with the preceding 2006 PRIN project. This research, in fact, studied at the European level (UK, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands) the patterns of change in the relations between national economic actors and HE systems (design of courses; research; technological transfer;

services to students etc.). Its results show a relevant differentiation both in the forms of  cooperation and in the problems encountered therein, differentiation which is strongly associated with the diversity of the national production systems. However, observing differences in the economy at the European level should not lead us to forget that the variance that makes it interesting to use a comparative approach at the European level can also be found comparing Italian macro-areas or regions. Thus, it seems to us useful to ideally bring forward the mentioned project trying to understand whether it is possible to find in Italy the same variation in the dynamic of change in HE as well as in the patterns of its relation with the economic environment observed in Europe (many examples could be provided: suffice it to think about the features of SMEs systems of the so called “Third Italy”, compared to the concentration of medium-to-big enterprises in the North-West of the country, or about how some areas specialize in manufacturing while other specialize in services). From this point of view, we plan to focus our research on four areas of the country: the North-West, the Third Italy, the South (this is a well-known  subdivision in literature), as well as the area of the Islands.

There is a well-known trade-off in data collection between the extension of the surveyed field and the depth of the analysis. This is why we are oriented towards focussing the study on one region only per area, which will be chosen on the basis of the results obtained in the preliminary recognition on universities (see Goal 1). In fact, such a focus on the regional level could allow us to be more precise on the actors involved and the arena they act in, particularly in the case of policy-makers (because of the administrative and strategic tasks of the regional institutions) and of economic actors (employers’ association are structured at the regional level, not at the macro-area one).

Differently from the previous research, however, in this one the relations between universities and the “external world” will be operationalised by means of the collection, and the coding, of the agreements signed by universities with firms and administrative bodies, regarding education, research, technological transfer and the provision of services. In this way we expect to construct, for the first time, a dataset representative enough at the territorial level to be used as a quantitative tool for analysis, to be flanked by a number of case studies on the more interesting examples of cooperation between universities and economic actors. When possible, the dataset will have a longitudinal structure, so as to assess the change over time of the phenomena under study. The coding of the agreements will allow us to compare the extent and the type of the relations with the external environment (the economy, the professions and the territorial context) for each of the following aspects:

–     the restructuring of curricula and the definition of their goals (curricula designed together with external actors, or with a substantial involvement of the latter; room for strategies of life-long learning)

–     the organization of services to students and firms (job-finding and career counselling, internships, tutorship, placement, monitoring of occupational careers);

–     the re-organization of research and of the uses of its results (activities of technological transfer; spin-off and start-up units; universities’ involvement and contribution to local development);

–     the external contributions to financing and governance of universities (type and degree of private contributions to the public system of HE and research; degree to which the management of universities is corporatist or managerial; percentage and weight of stakeholders in governance bodies). Both the pattern across time and the variation over universities and regions of those activities will be studied by means of statistical analyses.

Goal 3

Third, some cases of outstanding interest will be selected, and such cases will be studied in detail with the standard techniques of case study research: gathering of documentation, interviews to key informants, documents’ analysis. Although they represent a major source of evidence, information coming only from official documentation cannot be exhaustive concerning the analysis of the relation between universities and socioeconomic system. For instance, by just looking at the documentation it is not possible to reconstruct the behaviour of the different actors involved in the agreements, and the changing pattern of their relations.

In order to maximise information gathering and data collection, and the geographical scope of the research, minimising at the same time management and coordination costs, information and data collection activities, both in the first and the second phase of the project, will be carried out in strict cooperation by the three teams of the University of Milan, Pavia and Cagliari in four Regions representing the four Italian macro regions: North West, The Third Italy, Mainland Mezzogiorno, Islands.




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